The Cobham Plc name is usually associated with the provision of advance technologies and solutions in the defence and security markets, but it also plays in the commercial wireless sector. However, the company has recently made a more determined effort to push further into the latter market.
In May 2013, it announced the acquisition of UK firm Axell Wireless, a DAS (distributed antenna systems) and in-building coverage solutions provider, for £85m. Then in May 2014 it bought the wireless unit of US test and measurement firm Aeroflex. In February this year, the two were brought together to form the heart of a new division – Cobham Wireless, with senior vice president Ian Langley (from Aeroflex’s Wireless unit) at the helm (pictured above).
‘Cobham Wireless is a very strategic statement by Cobham plc to establish a place in the market,’ Langley tells Wireless. Aeroflex is already operating under the Cobham banner and Axell is expected to be fully integrated by July. On the face of it, the two firms seem a slightly odd fit. Why bring together a wireless test and measurement company and a wireless infrastructure company?
‘The Aeroflex wireless unit designs, builds and sells advanced network test tools, so when we came into the Cobham portfolio we wanted strategic diversification and to be a big player in the wireless market,’ explains Langley. ‘Cobham Wireless brings together two very entrepreneurial companies, which will begin the growth of a much larger organisation.’
What they have in common, according to Langley, is a strong venture capitalist organisation background. That meant there was a lot of pressure to keep costs down in both organisations. However, both firms are now part of a cash rich company that wants to invest heavily in the wireless sector, which should provide them with the impetus and support to expand, says Langley.
‘In addition, both companies are driven by the same dynamics,’ he continues, ‘as they are looking to provide solutions for LTE-A, heterogeneous networks (HetNets), SDN/NFV, 5G, big data and so on. Both have the same focus with a massive overlap in engineering skills and competence, large sales force, marketing capabilities and the like.’
Langley concedes that Cobham Wireless might not be able to sell test instruments and a DAS to the same customer, but he believes both sales require a similar approach to the market. They are both ‘high value sells’, so he sees a commonality there. ‘By using these common tools we will bring things together operationally and build a larger presence in the wireless market,’ he asserts.
Preserving brand value
He adds that it is important not to lose the value of the Axell and Aeroflex brands in the process, but by combining back office, engineering capability and sales leadership, these assets will be utilised to propel products deeper into the market, while still maintaining the Axell Wireless identity in particular. Langley agrees that one of Axell’s key strengths was its agility and ability to react quickly to changes and bring products to market in a speedy way.
‘There are a lot of aspects to Cobham Plc, as it has a lot of successful businesses within it,’ says Langley. ‘My pitch to Cobham about bringing these two companies together centres on growing a business with the right culture and drive to ensure we are very successful in the commercial wireless space.’
Langley admits that there are certain processes that have to be undergone when integrating acquisitions into a larger entity. ‘But there will be a fairly hard bubble around Cobham Wireless to try to insulate it from the aerospace and defence culture that won’t benefit the commercial wireless culture. The Cobham board accept that this is a risk and want to make sure it doesn’t happen,’ he explains.
‘There is a recognition that we need to maintain that agility and ability to be fast to market with solutions that both Aeroflex and Axell are good at. They both have very strong provenance pedigrees and are trying to move up the food chain to transform themselves from being box providers to solutions providers.
‘Going forward, I’d be surprised if there weren’t further partnerships and acquisitions. The wireless marketplace is growing and rising, and yes, all ships rise when the tide comes in, but with Cobham as a wealthy backer, we will be able to explore adjacent markets, new projects and most importantly propel idDAS into new channels and fund the ongoing road map of developments to augment our offering,’ argues Langley
Building on idDAS
Axell’s idDAS (intelligent digital DAS), launched in February 2014, allows mobile operators to allocate capacity to locations only where and when it is needed. ‘idDAS becomes more than an in-building coverage solution,’ says Langley. ‘It is an in-building capacity management solution as well and it will help to drive the connections we all demand going forward.
‘I think idDAS will be a strong product against other in-building coverage and capacity solutions. But I believe DAS and small cells will both be able to grow and survive,’ he says. ‘We do not think any one in-building coverage solution will dominate. There will be different solutions optimised for different environments. The small cell guys are already asking: “can we do operator agnostic small cells?” Small cells won’t fail, but as the complexity goes up and the frequency goes up, the cells will get smaller, so there will be a need for more nodes around that.’
Langley points out that concepts like Cloud-RAN provide a business opportunity that suits the agnostic approach of DAS, along with its ability to upgrade to 5G. ‘DAS solutions will only require an RF upgrade at worst to enable 5G, while small cell solutions will need upgrades to both baseband and RF. But overall, there is a lot of excitement here in this market.’
He also notes that one of the other things the test and measurement (T&M) market provides is an emphasis on the ‘research’ part of R&D. ‘We track emerging technologies as we need to get on top of those early on, so we can make money from them by providing the right test solutions,’ says Langley. ‘But many of these techniques and learnings become relevant as you move down from verification to testing in development and on to actual network testing once the solution is in place.’
Langley’s point is that Aeroflex’s expertise enables it to see what technology is coming down the line, understand advanced networks and have products and solutions to test and validate them. It is, for example, testing terabyte transmission over 100m indoors at the new 5G Innovation Centre (5GIC) at Surrey University in the UK.
Another example is the search for a 5G air interface. On the Cobham Wireless stand at Mobile World Congress 2015 in March, Dr Razieh Razavi from 5GIC, demonstrated two proposed 5G air interface algorithms developed by Cobham Wireless (see photo below): FBMC (filter bank multi-carrier) and GFDM (generalised frequency division multiplexing) - and compared their performance with that of OFDM (orthogonal frequency-division multiplexing), which underpins LTE and LTE-A systems.
Aeroflex also has test tools for software defined networking (SDN) and network functions virtualisation (NFV), which are being hailed as a way for mobile operators to easily expand their networks and provide a much wider range of real-time services to their customers at a greatly reduced cost. SDN and NFV are also seen as vital tools for enabling many of the proposed services 5G may bring.
Aeroflex responded to the SDN/NFV development by acquiring Shenick Network Systems in February 2014. This provided it with virtual testing for software-defined networking in the shape of Shenick’s TeraVM software. TeraVM offers network providers the ability to emulate and measure millions of unique IP application flows to support network and application development and performance testing in next-generation converged and cloud based networks.
Langley observes: ‘When you look at some of the 5G network topologies and Cloud-Ran, there is a thin radio interface and a lot of fibre back to fibre-based data centres. The complexity of these systems is going up exponentially, but as consumers we won’t pay more, so the cost must come down and that’s where virtualisation comes into play. We now have the expertise to model and test these new advanced wireless technologies.’
However, he notes that there are still only about 500 million 4G subscribers globally, so there is a long way to go before 4G fulfils its potential and 5G really takes off. He believes future networks will be comprised of legacy 2G, 3G, 4G (and probably Wi-Fi) architectures and the new topologies 5G will bring.
The HetNet future
‘They really will be heterogeneous networks and no one technology will dominate. Globally, there are 7 billion mobile connections at the moment, but we are looking at up to 50 billion by 2020,’ says Langley.
‘Many of these connections will be low data rate M2M/IoT connections, but there will be a lot of fast ones too. This means mobile operators will face a tremendous demand for additional capacity. All these new fast connections will have to be added on, but if we don’t virtualise gateways and nodes, then latency will become a big issue in itself.’
In Langley‘s view, and it is one shared by many, there will not be just one technology that takes us to 5G. ‘That is good news for people like us in this market. Both 4G and 5G are made up of a series of revolutions. If you are already established in the market that’s great, but if you are not, then the barriers to entry are very high. That said; there are a lot of companies in the market, so there is no room for complacency. We must invest through acquisition and R&D.’
He concludes: ‘But it is a really exciting market to be in right now; there is a lot of change and although the vendor marketplace is busy, it is not too crowded.’ Enough room to enable the new Cobham Wireless brand to build a strong name for itself then.